Eden Hazard did That Thing again.
You know, That Thing where he finds a bit more space than seemingly possible and makes multiple professional athletes emulate a goomba’s inability to move in three dimensions. That Thing. We can all recount in vivid detail each time he’s done That Thing, because it is so special.
Sure, each time he does That Thing is a little different, but the elements involved are usually the same. And there’s certainly an appreciation of it from a technique and elite-level motor function point of view — low center of gravity, fast-twitch muscles, countless hours of perfected footwork — but when Eden Hazard does That Thing, it deserves more. There’s a reason Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t write about football, it would suck.
What makes Eden Hazard doing That Thing so special is not just his technique, or acceleration, or even body control. It’s how he moves, how his movements make defenders move, and how he seems to know all of it ahead of time. When Hazard does That Thing, it’s not that he’s unplayable, it’s that defenders can’t help but play a part in what’s about to happen — Eden gives them no other choice.
During this instance of That Thing, Hazard vacated his left flank and drifted inside, into a pocket of space created by West Ham focusing on shutting down the wings. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, having dropped deep, then scoots the ball toward Eden who collects the pass with intent, casually heel-turning and flicking the ball ahead to keep it rolling forward, then spinning around to catch up to it. This burst of intensity is a familiar harbinger, as Hazard has a history of portending doom with his first touches.
In these moments, his touches get a bit more determined, more sinister. He’s already predetermined his moves and those of the defenders he’s set to embarrass. Think of his goal that secured the title for Leicester and how he executed a fake half turn to split two defenders at the halfway line. Think of his slaloming run versus Liverpool and the intent with which he chased a ball he had just passed to ensure he’d get it back. Think of his Arsenal masterpiece and how he refused to be tackled or fouled by Coquelin, and instead sent him spinning toward Earth’s core. Some say, he’s still spinning.
Back to Monday and West Ham.
Hazard sets up his first
defender victim by raising his posture as if he might pass or cut to his right, and the millisecond the defender buys it, Hazard is by him. This part is key because he doesn’t just beat the defender, he leaves the poor soul feeling completely disengaged from the play. He quite literally stands still in the middle of the pitch. He was defending Hazard one moment, the next he was wondering what breed of dog pairs best with his lifestyle. If Hazard had merely gotten a shoulder in front, the defender could have made a recovery challenge and stopped Eden’s momentum. Nullifying him so cleanly was vital to everything that came next.
With the space created between West Ham’s back line and the defensive midfielder developing a pros/cons list about cockapoos, Hazard is already well into planning his next moves. Using Higuaín as a buffer, he shields the ball from a challenge coming from the left and veers towards the striker, who gets the hint and clears out by backing away. Hazard lets the ball roll toward the newly vacated area, forcing scrambling defenders to defend that space instead of him, then knocking the ball through the gap left by their panic. There’s a tremendously quick change of feet by Hazard here as well, left-to-right, that almost defies description.
After all that, it becomes a race to the ball between Hazard, the goalkeeper, and Felipe Anderson, who ends up wiping out the other two. But by then, Hazard had already won. The left-footed shot nestling in the right corner of the goal, the celebration in front of the visiting fans, hands to ears like one his idols, Juan Román Riquelme, tying a bow on his completion of yet another instance That Thing.
After the match Sarri was asked if he and his system can take credit for Hazard’s highest-scoring Chelsea season and moments such as this, to which the Italian smartly replied, “My work? Not at all, [credit] to the mother of Hazard.” A kind and jovial thing to say, as well as presumptively true. But I’ve seen enough superhero movies to know that someone with Hazard’s abilities likely has a much more interesting origin story.